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As campus community shifts, new focus areas for spiritual life

Two Sri Lankan-born Buddhist monks sat cross-legged on the floor of the Sacred Space, an area of worship, meditation, and interfaith dialogues located in Ell Hall and overseen by Northeastern’s Center for Spirituality, Dialogue, and Service.

Some two dozen students joined the monks, forming a horseshoe-shaped ring along the walls of the open, warmly lit, and simply furnished area.

“We have to look within, we have to find ourselves,” said Venerable Bhante Heenbunne Kondanna Thero, the resident abbot and chief incumbent monk at Staten Island Buddist Vihara, who visited campus last Friday afternoon to discuss Buddhism and guide a meditation session. “We are not to look into other people’s minds. When we look into our own, we can find ourselves.”

The monks were guests of the NU Buddhist Group, a new student organization that encourages members to share their experience of Dharma, meditate on Buddha’s teachings, and develop wisdom and compassion. The group is representative of the Center’s push to engage with the university’s religious organizations, which have grown in number in concert with the campus’ international population. More than 6,300 inter­na­tional stu­dents from more than 140 coun­tries world­wide are cur­rently enrolled, a figure that rep­re­sents a 15 per­cent increase from last year and a 165 per­cent increase from five years ago.

“We are dedicated to meeting the spiritual needs of all our students,” said Alexander Levering Kern, the center’s executive director. “And not just spiritual needs—we want to engage the community in dialogue of the things that matter most to us all.”

Faith-based student organizations on campus are open to practitioners of each and every religion. According to Kern, they are intended to spark dialogues highlighting their similarities and differences.

“We’re hoping to move our campus culture from one of debate and diatribe to one of dialogue and open communication,” Kern explained. “The global leadership skills our students will need most are ones of dialogue across distance and division.”

Shanali Weerasinghe, a sophomore electrical engineering major who facilitated the monks’ campus visit, noted that joining the Buddhist group made her feel more connected to the university’s relatively small Buddhist community.

“I have been practicing my whole life and wanted to be more involved in my practice here at school,” she said. “Our weekly meetings are a great opportunity to meditate and relax and then have great discussions.”

Dan Arias, a third-year psychology major, guides meditation sessions in the Sacred Space and helps run the NU Buddhist Group. The organization, he said, has given him the opportunity to practice and explore Buddhism with an equally curious circle of his peers.

“It’s important to raise our awareness and see where we fit in,” Arias said. “Now we’re exploring things as part of a group, which can be very powerful.”